‘Welcome to Africa’ – now that’s the kind of greeting, delivered with a broad grin, that gets the imagination going. Just 15 minutes later we’re away from the modern airport and in Marrakech, the Red City; immediately everything changes. From the formal French boulevards of the new town the first landmark we spot is the elegant Koutoubia minaret rising, floodlit, above the Djmaa el Fna. Next we’re outside the old city walls, hawkers clustered around each of the large ornate gates we pass.
Once we are within the walls, the atmosphere changes again. The streets are narrower, darker and seemingly without any plan, countless allyways and dead ends hint at the navigational adventure ahead. The taxi pulls up on a small street. ‘You are here,’ announces the driver. This doesn’t look too promising, not a hotel in sight. But the guardien of the riad is here to meet us and with more smiles and ‘welcomes’ leads us down a narrow street, weaving between old men pushing handcarts, and onto yet narrower alley and at the end, is a large studded wooden door.
I’ve seen a few riads, some tatty, some a bit too chi-chi, but this one feels immediately inviting. It’s on a very cosy domestic scale – just five suites – and the grin on Mrs Smith’s face says I’ve made a good choice. Check-in is fuss-free and informal, the manager brings us cakes with mint tea and while our bags are whisked up to the suite, he shows us where we are on the map, asking us not to worry about getting lost in the medina. ‘Just call me and I’ll send someone to find you.’ If it’s your first time in Marrakech, these will be comforting words as the old city is a six-kilometre square maze of rarely signposted allyways. (This is my fourth visit and we still manage to get lost almost every time we go out.)
The approach to the suite confirms we’re somewhere lovely; a small private staircase complete with wrought-iron balustrade and giant glass lantern gives it a sexy air of privacy and exclusivity. And the suite itself is a delight; large and airy, decorated in the kind of earthy tones that make this interior designer happy and relaxed. Elegant curtains cover the windows looking out over the courtyard pool as well as discreetly hiding the wardobe niche and bathroom archway. There’s even an open fire for cold winter nights.
Cold beers are ordered and duly arrive with heaped bowls of nuts and olives, delivered by yet another smiling member of staff. Duly relaxed we plan our route into the medina. Although ‘planned’ may not be the right word as we take a wrong turn the minute we leave the hotel and end up back at Bab Doukkala, looking out at the new town. Retracing our steps we find a larger, busier street and soon we are heading to the Djemaa El Fna, the main square in the old city.
Eating in the square is a bit more straightforward than it used to be, all the stalls have prices on the menus now. It’s just a question of picking the place you like the look of (or more likely, the place that hussles you in first) and ordering as many dishes as you think you can manage. Portions aren’t huge so it’s a good place to try a few different local delicacies. I confess we sidestep the sheeps’ heads and the snails; we favour a selection of meats, fish, soup and various vegetable dishes all uniformly excellent. And as the ‘kitchens’ are all on display the hygiene standards are open to scrutiny.
Our feast is followed by sweet spicy ginger tea and cakes from another stall from where we can see the performers that the square is famous for; acrobats, dancers, snake charmers, monkey wranglers and storytellers all vie for our attention – and money. Feeling lucky? Try your hand at fishing for a bottle of pop or challenge the young Berber boy to a few shots on his makeshift putting green.
After all this exotica I hanker after a bit of Marakech’s faded colonial past and we wander down a busy shopping street south of the square to the bar at the Hotel Tazi. Not so long ago this was the only place in the medina where you could get a drink – nowadays new bars and cafes spring up all the time – but the Tazi is the original, and an old favourite.
Finding our way back to Riad Anyssates isn’t simplified by the addition of Casablanca Beer, but with the help of some local boys we find it – that’s the price of staying in a less touristy part of the medina. To my mind, a worthwhile exchange.
Up on the roof terrace that evening we drink cocktails under a broad sky the colour of Turkish delight (and not the pastel colour of the sweets in the market, but the vibrant fuchsia of the Fry’s UK sweet-shop variety). Romance is in the air, eastern promise indeed...
Breakfast is laid out the following morning by the shady pool, but it is ‘no trouble at all, sir’ to have it taken on the roof terrace instead. Trays of pancakes, msammen, fruit, yoghurt, bread, jam, even marmalade are spread out in the winter sun along with coffee, tea and juice. Clearly we aren’t going to get away early today.
Eventually we haul oureslves off the sofas and back out into the bustle of the streets, heading out of the old town towards the Jardin Majorelle (exit Bab Doukkala, first right, first left – something like that). The address, Rue Yves Saint Laurent, gives a clue to the former owner, now commemorated with a small memorial in the garden.
It’s a lovely place, formal plantings of bamboo, agave, cacti and papyrus in reflecting pools surround a modest yet dazzling house, now a small museum, gallery and shop. Tea can be taken – at a price – in another pretty courtyard.
After, it’s back to the riad for a well-earned beer and a shower. Our bathroom finished in tadelakt, the traditional polished plaster of Morocco. The beauty of this material is that the whole room is seamless; walls, floor, walk-in shower are all one continuous surface, broken only by a carved stucco cornice in white.
We enquire about hiring a car for a trip south to visit Tin Mal, the only mosque in the country that non-Muslims may enter. The hotel manager makes the call and arranges for for our own wheels to be brought round the next morning. No fuss, no hard sell for tours or guides. Perfect.
Before we set out the the cook asks if we will be back for dinner, and beaming at our positive reply asks what we would like. There’s no menu, and this is Morocco, anything is possible. Again, ideal.
The drive south is straightforward enough. Leaving the city, across a dusty plain, keeping the Atlas Mountains on the left, we soon start to head into the hills leading towards Tizi-n-Test, the highest mountain pass in North Africa. Later, a little lost, we stop for lunch in a one-horse town before finding the right road again and reaching Tin Mal.
The mosque is open to the sky – its cedar roof long gone – and surrounded by lush fields and barren hills. In the distance, a crumbling old kasbah can be seen on its vantage point above another pass. The place is deserted apart from the guardien who happily gave us a free tour, explaining some of the long history of the area.
On our return to our boutique hotel in Marrakech, the riad’s courtyard is beautifully lit with candles around the pool, gentle Berber music playing, and a single table for two set for dinner. Drinks arrive, followed by steaming tagines: couscous, grilled lamb, Moroccan salad and flatbreads. A fitting feast for our last night in the city.
It is only while packing to leave that I notice the lack of TV or WiFi in the room. If the aim of a hotel is to ease you away from your everyday concerns for a few days, Riad Anyssates certainly rises to the task.